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Official action will not be held unconstitutional solely because it results in a racially disproportionate impact. Proof of racially discriminatory intent or purpose is required to show a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. Once racial discrimination is shown to have been a substantial or motivating factor behind enactment of the law, the burden shifts to the law's defenders to demonstrate that the law would have been enacted without this factor.
Plaintiff individuals sued defendant members of Florida Clemency Board, arguing that Florida's felon disenfranchisement law, Fla. Const. art. VI, § 4 (1968), violated the Equal Protection Clause and 42 U.S.C.S. § 1973. According to the plaintiffs, the racial animus motivating the adoption of Florida's disenfranchisement laws in 1868 remained legally operative despite the reenactment of Fla. Const. art. VI, § 4 in 1968. The United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida granted the Board Members summary judgment. A divided appellate panel reversed. The panel opinion was vacated and a rehearing en banc was granted.
Was the Florida's felon disenfranchisement law, Fla. Const. art. VI, § 4 (1968), violative of the Equal Protection Clause, thereby making it an error for the district court to grant summary judgment in favor of the Florida Clemency Board?
The Court noted that the subsequent reenactment eliminated any discriminatory taint from the law as originally enacted because the provision narrowed the class of disenfranchised individuals and was amended through a deliberative process. Moreover, there was no allegation of racial discrimination at the time of the reenactment. Thus, the disenfranchisement provision was not a violation of the Equal Protection Clause and the district court properly granted the members summary judgment on that claim. The argument that 42 U.S.C.S. § 1973 applied to Florida's disenfranchisement provision was rejected because it raised grave constitutional concerns, i.e., prohibiting a practice that the Fourteenth Amendment permitted the state to maintain.